January 03, 2006

Lip-sync service

Rose and I have been watching Elvis Costello's "The Right Spectacle" DVD, which includes all his videos as well as a bunch of live TV performances. I had been slightly leery about buying it, since Elvis famously hates almost all of his videos, but Rose argued that even the bad videos would probably be entertaining -- and once I thought about it, I had to agree, especially when I saw that there were commentary tracks from Elvis on all the videos.

As it happens, yes, most of the videos are pretty piss-poor. Some are just benignly uninteresting videos in the band-pretending-to-play-their-instruments vein (although "New Lace Sleeves" is that sort of video, and manages to be pretty good), but some are quite stunningly bad. "Every Day I Write the Book" intercuts some pretty lame band-miming with vignettes of the home life of a Princess Di/Prince Charles look-somewhat-alike couple. Inscrutable, cheesy, and painfully forgettable.

Apart from the live TV performances, which are pretty swell, there are some good videos poking out of the heap of dross. "I Wanna Be Loved" (from the unloved-by-critics-and-Elvis-alike Goodbye Cruel World) is not just the best video on this DVD, but one of the best videos I've ever seen. Elvis explains in his commentary that director Evan English had him stay up all night before filming the video, which consists solely of Elvis sitting in a photo booth (sometimes audibly singing along to the song, sometimes speaking lyrics, and sometimes sitting silently) while strangers lean in and kiss him on the cheek, hug him, or blow in his ear. "Goodbye Cruel World" dates from an emotional low point in Elvis's life, and being strung out from no sleep apparently left him feeling quite fragile. He spends most of the video visibly upset. I found it powerfully affecting.

The videos after that are generally, at the very least, competent, with a few standouts -- "Veronica", "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", "So Like Candy". There is one big, big failure, though, and surprisingly, it was the follow-up to "Veronica" (which won an MTV Video Award!), "This Town".

Firstly, "This Town" is a terrible choice for a single. No song that features the phrase "the moody doomed love of the fish-finger king" is meant to be a radio hit. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror", "Satellite", or "Pads, Paws and Claws" would all have been far superior picks. But if you absolutely had to go with "This Town", would you then make a video in which the devil (played by an unattractively made-up and be-horned Elvis) hosts a game show, and which hamfistedly attempts to make some sort of inarticulate social commentary about how greed is bad? With a hokey spoken-word intro and outro? Oh, how it made me long to see some musicians miming along. Truly, Elvis Costello is an example of someone who succeeded despite MTV, not because of it.

Posted by Francis at 05:28 PM

Don't forget, he's ugly too. That couldn't have helped at the dawn of MYV.

Posted by: bpd at January 4, 2006 09:55 AM

Well, and Elvis was already a hit within his limited audience before MTV started making careers. In fact, the crap videos you mention are from the crap albums in the famous "crap" phase of his career (which is actually pretty good, at least for me). The thing is, what MTV didn't do for him was break him out into mainstream popularity, which was never really in the cards anyway.

Really, Elvis came along at a great moment, when wossname with Stiff was just getting going, and when college radio was a good way to get a career going, and when clever marketing could go on the edge of the mainstream and still make a few bucks. When it was worth a label's time to have minor hits. Ten years later, and his MTV-hostile persona would have hurt him a lot more.

Of course, there's the other question, which is why, given that evidently Elvis didn't actually want mainstream success, didn't he find filmmakers he liked and just do whatever videos he wanted? It was being done at the time, and surely he knew some freaky video guys, yes?


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